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Beginnings of Buddhism BUDDHIST –The Stupa So the Stupa, is an important form of Buddhist architecture, essentially a burial mound. It was believed to hold the ashes of the historic

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  • India and Neighbors

    Beginnings of Buddhism p. 29-54 Buddhist Art


    Last week we focused on the Hindu deities, their avatars and attributes. We also discussed the stories that informed the artwork while looking at the social and political, as well as, religious meanings.

    It’s important to note that Hindu beliefs, via the Vedas, predate Buddhism by at least 1500 years. However, we have no artwork of the gods until later.

    Actually, Buddhist art came before Hindu art. So, similarities exist because of the earlier Indus Valley connections and local conventions.

    This map shows where, in India, the Buddha lived during his life.

    You can see that now, Buddhism has moved to other parts of Asia.


    Within Asian history, no other movement, religion or event has equaled the degree to which Buddhism has affected nearly every corner of Asia.

    During its 2500-year history, we see change, persecution and integration as Buddhist development moved geographically across the continents.

    This map shows the movement of the different sects or directions within Buddhism that we discussed the week before last: Theravada Mahayana Vajrayana


    One of the keys to success was the ability of the faith to adapt and evolve within different cultures and their existing beliefs.

    This was done by harmonizing with earlier practices, by claiming a common origin with native gods and by emphasizing aspects of Buddhism that paralleled existing customs.

    The traditional dates of the Buddha are c. 563-483 BCE. We know he was a prince, probably from the Nepal region.

    Note: area on previous map.

    Notice in the chart on the previous page how few Buddhist live in India today compared to other Asian countries.

    While Buddhism began there, it is not the predominant belief system now. Note the places were there are many more people.

  • BUDDHISM—History

    During his life the Buddha was a great teacher of ethics. We do not know that he claimed religious leadership or attempted to form a religious order.

    His world was undergoing rapid and violent political and social change so that his teachings must have become a source of great moral strength to the people who knew him.

    It was a time in India when the merchant class was growing and there was an increasing preoccupation with economic and political power. As a result, people felt their freedoms being restricted.

    There were many philosophers at this time, including the Buddha, who sought liberation through spiritual means.


    The two main spiritual directions at this time were: The Brahmans—Orthodox, traditional rituals, based on the Upanishads. Lived as ascetics. This was their cast.

    The Shramanas—wandering spiritual leaders who left society and lived together in the forest. All rejected a supreme god—Bramah. No cast system here. This is the group Shakyamuni joined when he renounced his princely life .

    Eventually, the Buddha started one of 5 schools of the Shramana.

    One of the others was Jainism, which is still existent today as one of the major Indian religious systems. It teaches extremely strict ethical behavior.

  • BUDDHISM—History

    It was two centuries after Buddhism had been in existence when a very powerful monarch Ashoka (who ruled from 272- 231 BC) stimulated visual imagery.

    Ashoka, once converted, erected edicts carved on stone and wood pillars. From Bengal to Afghanistan and into the south, pillars were used that followed earlier Indian beliefs…the axis mundi ideals that were first expressed in the rig Veda.

    So, once again we see an already existing idea– the axis mundi (center of the world)-– being appropriated by Buddhism. It makes sense since people already knew what the pillars meant.

    An Ashoka pillar erected in support of Buddhism. At this time the lion was a symbol of the Buddha.

  • BUDDHISM—History

    Ashoka (who ruled from 272-231 BC) was the third ruler of the Indian Mauryan Empire. It was the largest ever in India and one of the largest of his time.

    When he first began his rule he was considered an efficient but very cruel leader. The story goes that after what is considered one of the most brutal and bloody wars in history, Ashoka issued an edict expressing regret for the suffering his army inflicted. He vowed to renounce war and embrace the dharma.

    It is not exactly clear that he was referring to Buddhism when he used the word, dharma, but he did perpetuate Buddhist sites and texts. So, he’s given credit for unifying India under Buddhism.

    An Ashoka pillar erected in support of Buddhism. At this time the lion was a symbol of the Buddha.

  • BUDDHISM—History

    Ashoka began to issue one of the most famous edicts in the history of government and instructed his officials to carve them on rocks and pillars, in the local dialects and simply so people could understand.

    In the rock edicts, Ashoka talks about religious freedom and religious tolerance, he instructs his officials to help the poor and the elderly, establishes medical facilities for humans and animals, commands obedience to parents, respect for elders, generosity for all priests and ascetic orders (no matter their creed), orders fruit and shade trees to be planted and also wells to be dug along the roads so travelers can benefit from them.

    An Ashoka edict inscribed in Greek and Aramaic.

    Prior to Ashoka, Buddhism was a relatively minor force in India. He turned Buddhism into the State religion, using it as a way to reduce social conflict.

  • CONTEXT—History—Side Note:

    Ashoka was not the only secular leader to unify people under one belief. In the West, this happened with Constantine in 333 (about 500 years later) when he unified the Roman Empire under Christianity.

    This is an enormous marble head of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Constantine had a vision in which the Chi Rho symbol of Christ appeared in a dream. He then had the symbol placed on the shields of his army. When they won the battle, he imagined it happened because Christ was on their side. He subsequently deemed it the ‘official’ religion of the Roman Empire. The rest is history. J

  • BUDDHISM—Back to the Pillars

    Instead of figures of the Buddha or portrayals of the stories of his lives, the early pillars consisted of symbolic elements--- continuing ancient Indian pillar cults---with their elaborate capitals (rendered in the Persian style).

    Earlier pillars with lotus pedal capitals were surmounted by animals such as lions, cows or elephants.

    Note: a capital is a sculptural element that sits on top of a column.

    Bull Capital, 3rd century BC, Mauryan, India

    Lion capital of column erected by Ashoka at Sarnath, India, ca. 250 BCE. Polished sandstone, approx. 7 high. Archaeological Museum, Sarnath

  • Pre Buddhist—History

    This is a picture of the remains of part of the palace of Darius III, a powerful king of the Persian Empire.

    These tall columns seen in the center were toped with animal images and predate the ones in India by just a couple of hundred years.

    Side Note: The axis mundi (also cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar and center of the world) is a symbol representing the point of connection between sky and earth. It offers means of travel and correspondence between the two realms. It is also the place where the four compass directions unite, allowing treasure from heaven to be disseminated throughout the world. This places it at the center of the world: at its navel, the world's point of beginning.

    Persepolis (royal audience hall in the background), Iran, ca. 521–465 BCE

    On top are some of the Persian capitals. You can see some of these at the MET.

  • Pre Buddhist—History

    When Alexander the Great, the Macedonian leader of the Greek Army, destroyed the Persian Empire in the late 4th century BCE, the artists traveled the Silk Road looking for new patronage.

    Here are pictures of two Persian Capitals from Persepolis. Both are in museums.

  • Pre Buddhist—History

    The Silk Road had just opened increasing contacts with India as the road connected Rome with China.

    If you follow the red line from the Arabian peninsula, through Persia, you can see how it intersects directly into North Western India.

    The artists found their new patronage in the Mauryan Empire in India bringing with them, styles and ideas.

    This map of the silk road shows both the land (in red) and sea routes (in blue).

  • BUDDHIST --History

    Ashoka’s capitals were the sites of some of India’s first Buddhist sculpture.

    He also supported rock-cut building resulting in the earliest Buddhist architectures.

    Note names of cities and areas, in particular Gandhara and Mathura. We will be talking about them later in this lecture.

    Map of early India.

  • BUDDHIST –The Stupa

    Much of the early Buddhist imagery was associated with the stupa, one of the three types of architecture. The other two associated with the monastery, the residence hall and the hall of worship (chaitya), which were made to be entered.

    The stupa was not made to be entered